Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen (2009)

     Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen (2009) does not make a magnificent transition from screen to printed page, and that may be largely due to the fact that it was never magnificent in its original format.  It was fun in a ridiculous, aggressively adolescent in its manifestation of an outsider's fantasy of mastering the universe through physical and sexual prowess.  More than that, Colbert himself gave Tek Jansen a tone that separated the character from being a crass combination of Captain Sternn from Heavy Metal (1981) and Zapp Brannigan from Futurama (1999-2003, 2008-present).
     In comic book form, Tek Jansen is just a character who is largely oblivious to what should be reality, but to keep true to the TV show bits, Tek always has to be right in the end...somehow.  It undercuts the satire and reduces the collected issues to second-rate status.  Surprisingly, by lessening the focus on Tek's need to turn everything to sex and then to be proclaimed an awesome and clearly having had "hundreds of girlfriends", the stories lose their bite.  If Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen is not a mockery of overwrought self-induced delusions of masculinity, then what is it?
     From a storytelling perspective, there are some minor issues.  Each issue may be missing a handful of panels that would allow for a much better flow, though this is only glaring in one instance.  I assume that the creative process in assembling a comic book calls for some cuts and the most efficient use of space – not every comic book can be issue #11 of The Night Man – and that enough material is present to please an invested reader.  Still, the main story arc is handled in too haphazard a manner to make one believe that there was any attempt to be serious in making the plot the point of interest.  That is another failing, because having a story that means something makes the satire more meaningful.
     I also want to complain that there is a drastic shift in the style of the artwork, going from looking like the TV shorts to a more stylized comic book look.  I didn't care for it, but as my artistic skills are severely limited, I mostly just want consistency.  That the artists do achieve.
     I can't recommend Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen.  There isn't anything new in it, and much of what was present in the TV shorts seems lost.  It may be far from terrible, but it isn't good.  It isn't particularly funny.  Worst, it lacks the bite that should have been the first priority when writing the scripts.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TekWar (1989)

     So, I remember watching the Action Pack TV movies (and then single season of the series) based on William Shatner's TekWar books.  They were pretty bad.  But I like Greg Evigan – I'm of the age that I remember him as both BJ McKay and Joey Harris – and I sure had plenty of time to waste on bad television, so I stuck with it.  Somewhere in my mind, I wondered how bad the source material was.  And now I have an idea.
     William Shatner's idea for describing the future in TekWar (1989) to to have plastic everywhere – plasglass, plascast, even just straight plastic – and make the robots/androids/cyborgs have shiny metal parts.  He replaces newspapers and magazines with fax editions (this may have seemed like a good idea in 1989, but it seems extraordinarily shortsighted now), but books are still printed – just on-demand.  Most importantly, the hero, Jake Cardigan, has contacts everywhere and isn't devastated that his wife and son are nowhere to be found after he is released from prison.
     Mostly, I was interested in how much of what the recent books I had read would be present in Shatner's work.  The answer is too much.  Descriptions are usually either too detailed (in the wrong places) or skipped over altogether.  There is little editing to keep him from using the same wording or phrasing repeatedly – everything happens "at exactly" a given time.  Always.  Minor or background character pop-up for almost no reason and contribute nothing to the story. The characters from South of the Border never learned the English terms for yes, please, or nothing.  Worst, the central motivation that seems to be driving Cardigan is never investigated or resolved.
     Shatner clearly knew that setting his novel in the realm of Sci-Fi would be an easier draw for his fans.  But his would-be hard boiled detective is set adrift in an almost cartoonish existence with no emotional anchors.  Cardigan has relationships with all kinds of people, but none of them feel very authentic or for a purpose other than allowing Shatner to avoid having to describe how investigations actually are conducted.  Even as light genre fiction, TekWar is a bad offering.  But it didn't cost me anything other than the two days it took to read, so it could have been much worse.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Ides of March (2011)

[There are spoilers.  Not trying to make them obvious, but I can't discuss the film without them.]

     I don't think I was supposed to find this crux of this film balanced on so ridiculous a point that I would actually complain about it as it was playing out.  The greatest media mind in recent campaign history is such a dolt that he cannot fathom a plausible reason why he would meet with someone who holds a position with an opposing candidate, never minding that the story has introduced three strong reasons for him to do exactly that.  At the same time, his capability is not so great that his job allows for an insignificant slight to his immediate boss (who is depicted, sadly, as not really doing anything) nor is his complete and total shift in character so repugnant that it keeps him from being let back into the fold and given more authority.
     The Ides of March (2011) doesn't want to spend much time building a plausible structure to its story.  I'm sure those who worked on it found it far too clever to worry about the glaring problems with it.  Likewise, they overlooked the fact that Ryan Gosling can do little more than look good – occasionally adrift – in the presence of actors who actually inhabit their roles, such as Philip Seymore Hoffman and Paul Giamatti.  The best Gosling can do is convince the audience is that young women really are eager to fuck him, but he plays the morning after as though he were a nervous high school junior (good grades, popular, but never had much luck with the ladies) instead of one of the two mean leading a Presidential election campaign.
     Most of the characters get to be stupid to allow the weakly structured story to roll forward.  Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) gets to deliver some poorly crafted speeches well, but he doesn't seem to be allowed to think.  This should make him a poor candidate for President of the United States.  At no point is Morris allowed to exercise good judgment; he instead gets to alternate between a dogmatic fastidiousness to his so-called beliefs and total morale failings.   I get that having the characters be extraordinarily intelligent would distract from what is supposed to be an examination of how individual poor choices can snare these powerful men, but it becomes hard to give credence to the notion that these characters would be in the position of being a serious contender for the office of the President or high level campaign staffers. 
     The language isn't evocative of those either in power or desirous of office.  In this regards, it feels as though the script had been dumbed down so as to not to alienate audiences with the educated lingo these men should be using on a regular basis.  But that means giving up on authenticity or poetic moments, and that hurts the film.
     Oh, and there is another huge problem the script cannot overcome. The daughter of the head of the DNC is working on the campaign, and none of the life-long Democratic politicians or staffers seem to know who she is or take efforts to make sure to limit her involvement (as her father would likely have done if he wanted to maintain an appearance of impartiality between the candidates).  Worse, for being the daughter of a powerful life-long politician, she is hopelessly naive in regards to the egos and wants of men of power.  That she isn't even given something as reasonable as daddy issues as part of her motivation shows that she is not so much a character but a means to moving the poorly planned out plot forward.
     There is some good acting in The Ides of March, but with the poor writing and workman-like (at best) approach to cinematography and editing, it cannot rise about the level of passable.  Maybe this works on a smaller scale, such as the stage, where more attention has to be paid to the characters and the dialogue, but given a larger canvas it only paints a less than earnest mess.  I'm sure those involved thought they had a film that was making a statement, but I doubt that they realized that statement was 'we should do a better job of showcasing the world in which we set our story.'

Friday, February 24, 2012

I don't know anything about quality films, 2012 edition

     I thought I would get my predictions (really just guesses, since I didn't see many movies in the theaters this year) for the Oscars on the record so I could show how little I know about what the Academy values.

Best Picture
The Artist
My guess is The Descendants, but not really on the strength of the movie.  I see it as the most supportable of the seemingly weak field.
Some of the nominations seem to have zero chance at winning – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (don't believe the claims that this film wasn't trying to exploit the sympathies felt for families directly touched by the September 11th attacks), Hugo (the kind of film that may garner Best Director consideration, but not able to convince people that it was worth seeing), Midnight in Paris (maybe I'm wrong, but unless Woody Allen can survive the Holocaust and make a movie about it, I don't see him losing his stigma anytime soon), The Tree of Life (when the actors disavow the movie, no matter how good it may be, it becomes hard to give it the awards), and War Horse (isn't it a tragedy when an innocent horse gets drafted into war, even more so than the English strategy of infantry charges against dug-in machine gun positions).  The Artist seems a little too uncommercial, but it might just win.  So might The Help, simply because it was so commercial (daring film, coming out against racism).  And Moneyball, though it has some fantastic baseball sequences, is not a complete film.  While I wasn't enamored with The Descendants, I have to pick it.

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
I should pick Scorsese, but he won not too long ago for The DepartedMy second guess should be Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist (because I think it is much more likely to win this than Best Picture).  Instead, I am going to be consistent and pick Alexander Payne for The Descendants.

Actor in a Lead Role
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
I am two minds about this.  I honestly believe that it is hard to give the award to an actor who doesn't have any spoken lines (but The Artist has to win for something) and that people have to be willing to honor Gary Oldman for his non-cheesy roles, such as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyAgainst my better judgment, I am going to guess that Jean Dujardin walks away with the statue.

Actress in a Lead Role
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Viola Davis for The Help.  The others already have awards and/or their films underperformed.  The Academy does care about box office, and I'm sure it is desperate to show a commitment to diversity by having a second African American winner (ever) in this category.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
I am not going to make a smart pick here.  Max von Sydow (aka Brewmeister Smith) has been a terrific actor (in at least four languages that I have seen, though Wikipedia lists him as having performed in eight different European languages).  The smart pick would be Kenneth Brannagh, and I wouldn't rule out Jonah Hill (who wasn't horrible in Moneyball), but I have to go with Max for this category.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Well, I don't see The Help taking two awards for acting.  If it does, it will be Octavia Spencer (who is probably going to win, but I am not giving another Oscar to Streep and thus picked Davis for Lead Role) and not Jessica Chastain (who had a very busy 2011).  That leaves me free to pick Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids, who (I've been told) meant as much to that film as Kevin Kline did to A Fish Called Wanda.

Music (Original Score)

The Artist
Ludovic Bource for The Artist, but largely because John Williams can't win every year.  Oh, and a movie with almost no spoken words needs music that works.

The Iron Lady
That's right, I'm picking against the last Harry Potter film.  The Academy seems to feel that lots of work is somehow less remarkable.  My pick goes to the team for Albert Nobbs.

Costume Design
The Artist
Sandy Powell for Hugo.  My better judgment would be betting on either The Artist or Jane Eyre winning, but I have to go with my gut.

Writing (Original Screenplay)
Woody Allen
Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris.  Yes, I know I said they wouldn't give him a statue, but this is his best chance.  The only one I would not expect to win is J.C. Chandour for Margin Call; this is a wide open category near as I can tell.

Art Direction
Again, I am going to do something stupid.  The Harry Potter films were a gold mine and at some point the Academy usually gives awards for that.  But I am picking the team from Hugo.

Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life. I didn't see it, but if the rest of the movie looks anywhere near as good as the clip of the children chasing the truck spraying DDT, then this should be a no-brainer.

Film Editing
The team responsible for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
While I think the duo responsible for The Artist will win, my pick is Christopher Tellefsen for Moneyball, because the baseball sequences looked awesome and seamless.

Foreign Language Film
A Separation
A Separation

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash for The Descendants.
Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash for The Descendants.  Really hoping that it isn't The Ides of March, because that story has an insane amount of problems and should not have been nominated.

Sound Editing
War Horse.  Chances are it will win something.

Sound Mixing
War Horse, again.

Visual Effects
Finally, an award for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2.

Music (Original Song)
Bret MacKenzie's "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets.
Bret MacKenzie's "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets.

     I am just going to assume that most everyone else made better choices than I did.  But I'll check back in on Monday and update this to note just how wrong I was.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Everything Creative Writing Book 2nd Edition (2010)

     The Everything Creative Writing Book (2010) feels like the kind of book one should read immediately before taking an introductory creative writing class.  It contains a lot of good information, but there is a distinct lack of depth.  It glosses over most of the differences between the kinds of writing it purports to address, giving desperately little insight into applying creative writing to business reports or essays.  Indeed, there seems to be a disconnect between the notion of creative writing and simply not writing something awful in a different form.  Bad writing is not just bad writing, it is bad in relation to its intended purpose in addition to any other failings it may have.
     Perhaps the main problem is that the book attempts to cover too much material.  Letters to the editor, essays, and business proposals all require writing, but probably don't need to be in a book on the topic of creative writing.  Poetry felt rather awkwardly inserted into the mix as well, but I also have a bias against the form because I often have problems finding the rhythm the author intended .  Writing plays (and screenplays) is also covered, something that I gravitate towards because I do enjoy writing an over abundance of dialogue (see this old short story) into almost story.  Why not do it in a format where it is more accepted?  Unfortunately, The Everything Creative Writing Book spends no time addressing the format of plays and scripts.  To make up for this, it does explain a small amount of the lingo for screenplays, like slug line.
     Though relatively recent, the book cannot help but feel dated.  When it references self-publishing, there is still the assumption of printing physical copies of a book (or magazine or comic book) rather than simply choosing the e-reader friendly formats that Amazon and Barnes & Noble make available to just about any aspiring author.  Sure, the information on how to get an ISBN is nice, but essentially the self-publisher is going to search for information on the same topic in more detail on the internet.  Likewise, the information on how to get one's book into libraries feels very thin – another area where the purpose had to be more of keeping the idea in the reader's head rather than giving definitive information.
     What author Wendy Burt-Thomas does the best job of conveying is that the material an author has after the first draft is most certainly not to be considered to ever be on par with reviewed, rewritten, and edited work.  She does not make much of an effort to deal with the difference of authors whose first revisions are complete rewrites (effectively treating the first draft as a means of outlining and providing details for a story that has yet to be properly written), revisions (what I assume is standard rewriting), and editing, except in asides.
     It is hard to find something new in the fourth book on writing I've read this month.  There is bound to be a lot of re-stating the core principles: write every day when you are writing, treat rewriting and editing as serious endeavors, not everything you write is going to be good – even when it is finished.  But Burt-Thomas is somewhat more forgiving in telling the aspiring author that it is okay to take time away from a project (and even from writing, though this is supposed to be kept brief).  When she does the best job of is keeping the material positive at almost all times.  There is almost nothing in the book that will discourage the would-be author, and she is quick to point out that if the criticism is constructive it isn't going to be of much use to correcting the errors. 
     While How Not to Write a Novel (2008) is a more entertaining read, The Everything Creative Writing Book is undoubtedly a better resource when it comes to guiding beginning writers and aspiring authors into finishing their projects.  As long as one ignores how little most of the interviews add to the material, and that the essay and screenplay examples in the appendix are less than stellar (they will no doubt make most writers feel good about their own work), it is a solid book.  My one real complaint about it would be that her suggested writing exercises seem more tedious than insightful, but that is not enough for me to not recommend the book.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

There be Dragons (2011)

     It takes a fair amount of work to set out to tell four different stories and effectively illuminate none of them.  That is exactly what happens in Roland Joffé's There be Dragons (2011).  The audience gains no insight into the works and history of Opus Dei, the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Spanish aspect of the Terrible Triangle, or the relationship between the two central characters in the film.  Indeed, there is no rational reason for the characters to be linked.
     In what feels like the ultimate cheat, there is almost no definition given to the sides or conflict of the civil war.  Joffé, I assume, was going for a sense of confusion on the part of those living through the events, but those characters certainly would have had much more insight than what the film allows them.  Then there is the possibility that Josemaría Escrivá's (Charlie Cox) siblings may have died because of the flu pandemic of 1918, but no reason is given for their deaths.  Like the rest of the film, it feels both ill-informed and halfhearted. 
     Essentially, this should be the story of how a man spent his adult life trying to come to terms with the actions he took during the Spanish Civil War, which he relates to his estranged son.  For some reason, this story is mixed with a priest-on-the-run tale, and it is nowhere near as interesting as the real story must be.  Giving no character enough room to develop, There be Dragons moves ever onward towards the reveal that has nothing to do with the priest or Opus Dei.
     I found myself actively upset that this film was not done with a Spanish cast; I cannot explain why, except to say that it would have felt less artificial if the actors were at least Spanish or even speaking Spanish.  The budget seems to have been spent on a few set-pieces and not on making the scant war scenes look authentic (though I was very excited to see a Lancia IZM in action, that was ruined for me with the independent movement on the turret-mounted machine-guns).  The English speaking cast gives no urgency to the material, and they seem caught somewhere between a dull period piece and an ironic anti-war movie.
     This is a prime example of where bad reviews are a great indication that a film should be avoided.  It is largely a waste of time.  Read a book about Opus Dei or one written by its founder, like The Way.  Read about the Spanish Civil War.  But don't expect any insight into life, the Church, Opus Dei, or the Spanish Civil War from There be Dragons.  All you will get is some half-formed notions that don't develop into anything coherent.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Redline (2009)

Unironically Awesome
by Silence Do_nothing

     That a surly blue gorilla traffic cop who braves the hostile forces of a military planet called Roboworld to enter an illegal anything goes death race with brazen alien hot-rodders is a great idea in theory, I take as a given. What matters most, though, is how well that idea would translate in practice.
     Going back to VHS tapes from Blockbuster in the 90s, I've learned that most anime ideas which sound cool or quirky in the synopsis aren't as entertaining when executed on the screen. Poor dialogue (perhaps a a weak adaptation by the translator?), glacial pacing, or choppy cost-saving psuedo-animation have doomed many which sounded good. But just as I think it's time to give up on the medium, I come across one which reminds me how it can offer an experience not found in American animation. Redline (2009) is the latest to do so.
     Those whose interest in Japan comes from video games, giant battling robots and mulleted superhuman martial artists with implosion powered punches, as opposed to the more traditional route of cherry blossom viewing, tea ceremonies and zen gardens, will be attuned to the film's awesome visual style. The movie radiates garish delight. It has Las Vegas style architecture, pachinko color schemes, futuristic Hot Wheels influenced hot rods and characters that wouldn't feel out of place in the Heavy Metal (1981) animation. It's the perfect antidote to the restrained taste of Apple's much vaunted design aesthetic.
     The animation is giddy fun that wrings smiles out of even the most reserved demeanor. Frames were dense and hyperkinetic without losing clarity. Vehicle and driver stretched towards infinity during a nitro boost. A gaggle of wild eyed reporters who've invaded a racer's hospital room contracts and expands like one breathing entity. The production went against the CGI trend by using 100,000 pages of paper based hand drawn animation. The fluidity wasn't equal to a Hollywood production (although Ghibli is presumably the only Japanese studio currently making feature length cartoons which are comparable in this respect), but it's still noticeably better than television quality.
     Thanks to good pacing, the film's vast amount of frenetic action never became repetitive or numbing. The sequences in between the two races allowed for a better look at all the awesome design work. Background guys looked better than many animations' main characters. From the larger elements, like an orbital beam cannon or giant mutant bioweapon, to the small, such as an unmotivated anthropomorphic squid shopkeeper (which struck me as a Japanese dig at foreigners' customer service), the movie had so much stuff that would have made a cool toy (I leave it to the reader to decide if the merchandising-appeal-as-cinematic-excellence standard should be applied to a Citizen Kane (1941) ).
     CliffsNotes aren't needed to follow the story, but when you have a movie that looks as awesome as Redline, it only has to avoid gumming up the works. There wasn't any cringe-worthy dialogue to ruin scenes. JP, the rockabilly looking hero with an improbable pompadour (officer Gori was only a minor character), is likable enough to give a rooting interest and provide an emotional anchor to the action scenes. He isn't racing for money and he rejects his competitors' habit of arming their vehicles with deadly weapons. JP is a purist who wants to compete on racing ability alone. His earnest hunger for victory manifests itself near the finish-line as the strain of every fiber of his body is so great that his eyeballs bleed (although that display still wouldn't be enough to save him from the "lazy" label if he were running wind sprints for my former coaches).
     I've used "awesome" to describe its visual excellence, even though the public doesn't respect the word as much as I'd like. The term has become debased by attaching it to things far from awesome (I won't get into whether using it to describe entertainment, rather than nature or the divine, was a prior devaluation). Add to that a generation's cynicism [several decades after Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966) and Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), the pendulum continues in one direction] and you have the word more often employed sarcastically than seriously.
     Hopefully, applying the term to high quality works like Redline is a step towards shoring up the currency of awesome and rehabilitating its sincere meaning. Because I refuse to use "epic". Forget that.
     For neophytes, Redline is good enough to spark an interest in other anime. For lapsed fans, it will renew their faith. It would be totally awesome if my wait for the next anime of this caliber were less than the five years the characters had between races. "Totally", not to betray my 80s upbringing, but because nothing is ever somewhat awesome or a little bit on the awesome side. Awesomeness knows no moderation, but it is well acquainted with Redline.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

     Cowboys & Aliens (2011) has one strength going for it – it looks good.  There is a crispness to it that enhances the beauty of the New Mexico landscape and makes the setting appear real without losing the verisimilitude to the actual era in which it is set.  Then there are the aliens, and the movie largely falls apart.
     I don't know if it was the ridiculousness of the sputtering, black-cloud spitting, seemingly piston engine powered flyers the aliens use to scout and capture people – these flyers are of variable size, though that is a fault with the CGI team not keeping the imaging consistently scaled – or that with a near magical ability to steal the precious resources they are after, these aliens go out actively picking fights with the locals.  Then there is the conceit that losing over one hundred people to rescue around forty hostages is wholly acceptable.
     I don't want to rag on Daniel Craig, who could probably play a very good anti-hero cowboy (American or Australian, since he favored the hat worn Down Under), but director Jon Favreau doesn't give him much of a chance to do that.  None of the characters are well developed (Harrison Ford's character has an unlikely redemptive arc that involves him getting other people killed so he can love his son in a more positive manner), and some appear solely to act as victims that are supposed to evoke an emotional response from the audience.
     When I see the names Kutzman and Ocri, I expect a horribly structured story.  They are terrible writers.  They have long been terrible writers and, as far as I'm concerned, they will always be horrible writers.  In this case, Alex and Roberto live up to my expectations.  There is no smooth narrative flow, nor is there a building of suspense.  Part of that is the fault of the editing, but how much can be done to save a film when it isn't well conceived on the page?
     I am exceedingly pleased that I didn't pay money to see this.  For what worked – the look of the film – it is largely a mess.  Why not make a well-budgeted, adult Western?  I would much prefer that to trying to force some aliens into the story (and I'm a huge sci-fi) fan.  The last mature Western I can remember is Open Range (2003), and that had a love story shoe-horned into it.  Damn it, Hollywood, I want good Sci-Fi films, but there is an absolute shortage of Westerns.  Sure, I can point out that I have yet to see some of the Westerns released over recent years, but none of them had even one quarter of the budget of Cowboys & Aliens.
     Anyway, this was a bad movie in terms of telling a coherent story or making me care about the characters.  Or respecting advanced alien cultures and physics.  Other than some great photography, mostly of the landscape, there isn't much of a reason to watch it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

This Year You Write Your Novel (2007)

     That's right, I am continuing in the reading of books on the subject of writing rather than actually writing.  However, I avoided these books for so long with little reason  – unless simple arrogance is a reason and not just a cause.  There is a lot of this attitude in regards to politics, where people feel they know enough on the subjects to forever avoid actually learning anything.
     I picked up Walter Mosley's This Year You Write Your Novel (2007) at the Forest Park Public librbary without knowing who the author is (which makes me feel nearly illiterate) because I assumed that it would have some advice on how to budget time towards writing a novel.  Unfortunately  – at least for me  – Mosley's advice is to write every day, every week, for the whole year.  Sure, some of this writing is actually reviewing, revising, and full-on editing, but Mosley wants the aspiring author to put in between 1½ and 3 hours per day on the novel  Every single freaking day..  I think that would lead to a fair amount of burn out if it is all dedicated to the same story.  On the other hand, one of the major reasons I have this blog is to keep myself in the habit of writing something (usually not fiction, and almost never very time consuming material) on a regular basis, and from that I can attest that writing regularly makes it easier to find the rhythm for a story.
     Mosley, however, tends to view the novel as many smaller stories within the larger, connecting story.  Since he has been quite successful as an author, I am going to defer to his judgment on the matter.  Time spent with the smaller bits informs the bigger structure, and that can always change as the writer moves forward with it.  He also discusses the intuitive method (something all of us self-proclaimed smart people think is real writing) versus more structured, planned approaches.  How one spends time on the book is going to differ with each, and I'm appreciative for how Mosley covered this.
      There is also a small section dedicated to the value of the classroom, both in terms of academic study and writers' workshops.  I have long been too [insert one or more of the following: shy, timid, stubborn, arrogant, cowardly] to invite a crowd of people who are also authors (aspiring or published) to have access to my work just so they can point out all of the mistakes I've made.  Yes, I like being overly critical of the work other people do, but I don't want that same spotlight shined back on me.  But if an author is going to be serious about finding the flaws in his or her writing, then workshops seem to be a great tool.  You can find the errors you makes in the works of others (where they are easier to spot) and have others highlight the problems that you never see because you are just too damn close to your own story.
     By itself, This Year You Write Your Novel isn't going to be of much help.  As a supplement to knowing something about writing and a real desire to finish a story, it can be a great aid.  Mosley's acknowledgment that the first draft is going to be terrible (accept it, would-be authors) and that the real work comes from turning the rough story into a readable novel is encouraging.  On the other hand, he doesn't have much to say about how to get published other than to make contacts – another reason to workshop – and figure out who is likely to publish your type of material.  And then be ready for a steady stream of rejection, one that isn't likely to go once an author has had a few books (or more than twenty) published.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (1998)

     If one were ever curious as to the magnitude of difference between the educators at the community college and university level, he or she should pick up Crawford Kilian's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1998, though there is a more recent revision that should avoid some of my criticisms).  Kilian manages to spend 160 pages giving information that could just as easily have been conveyed in a pamphlet. 
     Part of the book is wholly worthless.  Information about how to set one's Netscape browser or using AltaVista as a primary search engine seem damn near laughably ancient 14 years after publication.  Formatting instructions so that manuscripts can be read by Macs and PCs also seems redundant.  Worst of all, Kilian dedicates a mini-chapter to a rushed overview of basic English grammar.
     It is a little difficult to take an author seriously when his books are almost entirely out of print.  Does he know scores more about writing, marketing, and publishing novels than I do?  Absolutely.  Ashton Kutcher has more practical experience in terms of television and film acting than I do, but I wouldn't go to him for advice on the subject matter; I would seek out someone I believe can act at a professional level.  Where Kilian lost me was in his deep and abiding love for Orwel's heavy-handed 1984 (1949) – a fine, but far from excellent novel – while completely misreading Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer (1977) as a manifestation of a white suburban fear of urban black men.  Talk about not understanding the time and setting of the book, and that the racial tensions in Los Angeles did not end with the Watts Riots.
     But to the material itself.  Kilian expends a fair amount of effort to display that he is well versed in the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  He name drops constantly – revered authors become his lifelong inspiration, lesser authors are acquaintances and peers with whom he has debated at workshops, and the truly obscure are mentioned to prove that he isn't just familiar with the most successful titles in print.  Kilian calls out those who write licensed fiction – what he terms formula fiction – as not being real authors interested in telling real stories.  I don't know if this applies to the more recent authors who create their own setting and characters that go on to be licensed; I would assume so as Robert E. Howard is viewed as a real author for his Conan stories.
     Unfortunately, Kilian is very interested in providing a formula for writing a novel.  In his estimation, all Science Fiction and Fantasy novels are about power.  That may be true; the ones I have wanted to write are about political and economic power.  But it reads as overly restrictive to announce that all of them must be.  He provides a blueprint for moving the story forward, something that seems much more valuable as a workshop or classroom tool than a means to work on anything other than formula fiction.
     I found this book to be a waste of time.  Well, not entirely, but I would have preferred he had written a much more concise book that didn't feel the need to be constantly self-referencetial.  From what little example Kilian gives of his own works, he doesn't seem like somebody I would want to read, but I have one of his books on order from the library that I intend to read to give me a better idea of his ability as a fiction writer.  He certainly seems well versed in what it takes to get material published – that section felt more honest than the rest of the book. 
     I cannot say that I am eager to read anything more from this series.  Not just because Kilian did not address "how to get the science and magic right" ('read science journals' and advice on keeping magic internally consistent isn't informative by itself), but because the target audience seems to be much different from me.  What Kilian illustrates well are the following two points.  First, devotees to a genre may harshly judge works by authors who are not as familiar.  Secondly, waiting for inspiration to write is an invitation to being something other than an author.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How Not to Write a Novel (2008)

     I don't know if I have had more laugh out loud moments with a book than with Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman's How Not to Write a Novel (2008).  There is something special when authors can make 'bad writing' much more entertaining than what passes for acceptable fiction these days.  Sure, such prose really only works in small doses – nobody wants to read 180 pages of rapid-fire absurdities, unknowingly self-denying characters, and logical inconsistencies – but because there are so many real mistakes that writers can and do make, Mittelmark and Newman have no problem keeping the examples short and extremely pointed.
     Some of the fun in reading this comes from the liberal recycling of character names from all the fake, flawed fiction.  Melinda may be a waitress who obsesses over her boyfriend not remembering to celebrate the anniversary of their third date or a woman sold into sexual service to a ruthless terrorist.  Maybe it is the same Melinda; that would be an odd mash-up novel. 
     One of my favorite moments – and one that actually could work given a truly gifted author who could give it deep contextual meaning...well, some of it could work – comes from the sub-section "Linearity Shrugged" (p 124)

           Melinda would have never guessed that she would find true love in the arms
          of the ruthless terrorist to whom she had been sold like a hardware fixture 
          by the man she had trusted with all her most intimate papers and 
         documentation.  The beans were still too hot to eat.  In the early 1900s, 
         Tripoli had been a small market town, where goats could be seen not only 
         the streets, but making themselves at home on the Persian rugs of 
         fashionable homes.

I must have laughed for about a minute at the abruptness of "The beans were still too hot to eat."  Not only does it seem to have nothing to do with the establishing sentence, but its curt, very masculine tone stands in complete contrast to the overlong romantic sentence that proceeds it.  Where "The beans were still too hot to eat" could stand as a metaphor – a clumsy sexual one, or a clever one about reigning in one's passions, or something more mature than I can imagine on my own – it reads here as a complete distraction.  But more than that, it conveys more meaningful information to the reader on its face than the one exploring Melinda's journey into being the property of a terrorist or where goats slept in early 20th Century Tripoli.  It takes an insane amount of understanding of the craft to structure a paragraph (and it goes on for some length in the example) that both showcases the mistakes authors and wanna-be authors can and do make.
     Likewise, Mittelmark and Newman have great advice about the dangers of indulging the desire to soften the villain by giving him or her some likable qualities.  First, there is the issue of what the would-be author may consider sympathetic may not play as such with a wider audience.  But more to the point, some villainy is beyond redemption.

          Jack robs and cheats and beats his kids—but still pines for his first love.  
         Adolf introduces Fascism to Germany, spreads war throughout Europe, 
         murders millions in concentration camps—but he's a strict vegetarian and 
         loves his dog.  Tossing in a touching scene with his German shepard 
         Blondie and a dish of lentils won't make Hitler "more balanced."  Hitler's 
         character isn't balanced.  The only way to avoid caricature is the hard 
         way: making the bad guy's insane behavior and motivations believable. 
           (p 87)

Round out characters, of course, but there is no need to falsely "humanize" them.  The elements of character that don't directly relate to motivation should still inform the reader about the experiences that inform that motivation.  Furthermore, note that not everyone loves dogs (some of us harbor an intense fear of them because dogs tend to bite people) and vegetarianism isn't super-popular; see the lack of competing vegetarian chain restaurants as opposed to the massive profits of McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, and KFC.
     There is advice that I just assume real authors know.  Bold print, unusual capitalization ('his Beer was cold and Refreshing') and exclamation points (except when a the dialogue needs to represent a character shouting or screaming) should see little to no use in a novel.  Sure, I liberally abuse italics and bold print on this blog; I don't have an editor to tell me I can't do it.  And it is an overly easy cheat to try to put extra meaning (or note that I'm trying to be sly) with a word or phrase.  Serious writers should do the work.  If you are trying to be sly, then actually write something that conveys that.
     Because Mittelmark and Newman aren't interested in the proper way to write a novel, they can concentrate on the many mistakes that are waiting to be made.  Illustrating the mistakes makes for a much more enjoyable read than a dry treatise on the proper technique for writing a novel.  Indeed, there isn't really a proper technique.  How Not to Write a Novel could have subtitled sections "You are Not [insert author's name here]."  Aspiring, unpublished authors are not Hemingway, Faukner, Roth, Twain, McCarthy, or King.  There is an assumption on behalf of Mittelmark and Newman that the would-be author is aiming for a more commercial than literary product – more Grisham or Collins than Morrison or Mailer – something that I find a little odd.  As much as I enjoy Richard A. Knaak's Dragonrealm books or Michael A. Stackpole's BattleTech novels, I would rather my works be more meaningful; I would like to think I want to write something more than just an interesting yarn. 
     In making the case for remembering where a scene is set – to not ignore other character present entirely, or forget what the scene would otherwise be about if the characters weren't so self-involved and interested in being interesting – Mittelmark and Newman give a passage that draws together several other flaws.  It is also the example that convinced me that this book would work as a movie, though I don't know how large a market there is for a kind of Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) built around literary clichés, grammatical errors, and inconsistent point of view..  Still, I don't know if any film has captured this level of sincere absurdity:
          The meeting began with a few prefatory remarks by the Mayor.  As luck 
          would have it, Jane and Alan found themselves seated next to each other
          at the far end of the conference table.  Jane avoided looking his way.
          Alan took out his pen and began tapping it on the table, something he 
          knew got on Jane's nerves.
          Jane glared at him.  Alan smirked.  She darted her hand out and snatched
          the pen from him.
           Alan glared back, but his look soon softened.
           "I don't want to hear it."
          "Jane, don't you know how sorry I am?"
          "You should have thought of that before you and your cousin—"
          "Second cousin, okay?" Alan interrupted, his tender feelings forgotten.  "It's
          not illegal."
          "Whatever!" she said.  "If she was two months younger, it would be."
          "If you were a little more enthusiastic in bed, instead of bringing up your 
          so-called trauma every time I tough you, maybe you could complain," Alan 
          said, bitter.  "I get it, okay?  Seeing what your father did to Fluffy was 
          horrible.  Well, that was twenty years ago.  Time to get over it."
          Jane shook her head, angry.  "That's what I get for trusting a Neo-Nazi!"
          "Of course!  Blame my politics!"  Alan pounded the table with his fist, 
          nostrils flaring.  "You and your Jew friends would just love patriots like 
          "Shut up, Alan!  Shut up!"  Jane shrieked wildly, grabbing his collar and 
          shaking him.
          When the meeting was over, they filed out with their colleagues, 
          comparing notes on the Carb-Free Detroit! campaign that the Mayor had 
            (p 142-3)
     It should be noted that one can make many of the 'mistakes' outlined and still get published.  A lot of them can go into the same book.  David Heinzmann's A Word to the Wise (2009; commentary on it can be found on this blog) has a stereotypical gay character who seems to exist to show how okay the main character is with homosexuals.  Too much attention is paid to the minutiae of details of clothing.  The main character is supposedly well-rounded because he still thinks about a college football game where he didn't score the winning touchdown (never mind that he is a former FBI agent turned lawyer, and not bad looking to boot) and likes to, he's a natural cook who intuits what makes a good meal.  But Heinzmann has had a long and successful career as a journalist – still does – and that is going to open more doors than perfectly crafted characters.
     I recommend this book not just for the frustrated would-be author, but for anyone who likes to read.  Mittelmark and Newman have an easy, conversational style.  More than that, it is clear that they respect the effort it takes to move a story from imagination to the page.  If the story is nothing more than a retelling of already established clichés and stereotypes, why bother?  And if one is going to bother, at least the easiest of errors can be avoided.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Green Lantern (2011)

[So, I guess I am rather careless about spoiling some aspects of the film.  But I assume that anyone who really wanted to see it has already.]
     On one hand, Ryan Reynolds will always be Michael "Berg" Bergen from Two Guys and a Girl (originally Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place, 1998-2001)...and not just because he continues to bring that kind of faux-shy charm and gentle snarkiness to most of his roles - National Lampoon's Van Wilder (2002), Blade: Trinity (2004), Just Friends (2005), Waiting (2005), and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).  On the other, he is an actor who is willing to take chances with smaller films and less traditional roles - something that works in Chaos Theory (2008) and comes up short in Buried (2010) - and finds ways to take the appeal out of the managed charm in Adventureland (2009), where he gives the strongest and most honest performance in the film.  But in Green Lantern (2011), he seems to have been given the instruction of playing Hal Jordan as half Berg and half before he was crazy John Crichton from Farscape (1999-2003) as played by Ben Browder.  Given that I have an incredible man-crush on the Crichton character, this really works for me in Green Lantern.
     In fact, I could watch Reynolds be Jordan all day long.  As a regular human or in the suit.  And that would have been a good enough movie for me, because it would be giving me exactly what I want.  At the same time, I realize that this isn't the recipe for a blockbuster.  Still, if the producers wanted blockbuster, why go with a hero like Green Lantern? 
     Where Green Lantern disappoints – and it does – is in its heavy-handed, leaden handling of truly unnecessary exposition, leading up to a confrontation that is ultimately self-defeating.  The greatest threat known to the universe is defeated by a neophyte on his first real mission.  Seriously.  Too much is made of the alienness of the Green Lantern corps, and no attention is paid to Hal Jordan being able to breathe and speak in space because he now wears a fancy glowing ring.
     The other aspects of the film kind of work.  Reynolds is strong in the lead, giving Jordan charm and insecurities.  Blake Lively is surprisingly likable in a stock role of damsel in distress who has the emotional key to the hero's heart, though she is probably about five years too young for the details of her character's life; not a lot of 25 year old test pilots who also have MBAs and are set to take over a multi-billion dollar defense contractor business in anything resembling the real world.  Accomplished actors Tim Robbins, Jay O. Sanders, and Angela Bassett aren't given much to justify putting such recognizable faces in their roles, but they play them well.  Peter Sarsgaard goes beyond a soulless aping of Dale Midkiff (see my complaints about Orphan) and gives his character nuance and menace.  Truly, his character arc – because of how well it is played – felt like it was worthy of its own film.  Why not give a burgeoning super-villain his own movie?
     There is enough self-awareness of the ridiculousness of superhero convention to keep the movie from becoming dull.  Sure, the suit pops out of nowhere, because how else could the corps have the same outfit.  It isn't like the funding covers sending tailors all over known space maintaining the uniforms.  A simple mask completely obscures the hero's identity?  Well, not to those who really know him; Lively has the best line ever given in regards to this.  The power of the ring is dependent on the will and imagination of the wearer, but not much work goes into training Jordan how to extend his imagination or focus his will.  One would think that improv classes and some Tai Chi would be much more useful that dropping some heavy objects on his head, but it wouldn't be as funny to watch or visually stimulating.
     I would have to think that Green Lantern could have shaved off much of the backstory of the corps and the time on the alien planet of Oa without making the audience feel lost.  Let the story be about Hal Jordan and his coming to terms of what is being asked of him.  Having him have to save the planet within a month of getting drafted feels cheap and stupid, something that blockbusters shouldn't try to matter how much money Michael Bay's Transformers movies make.  Revealing the Green Lantern universe – moving him further away from Earth and his loved ones – should be something that happens as the story evolves; it should have been saved for any planned sequels. 
     In the end, Green Lantern is enjoyable, but it is far from a masterpiece.  In trying so hard to launch a franchise, it hides what would give it life – the characters.  Still, it is a better payoff than reading through 50 years of comic books or enduring the animated Green Lantern products which require a fair amount of knowledge from the comic books.  But Reynolds is good in it and that is enough reason to see it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Pearl (1945)

     John Steinbeck's novella The Pearl (1945) was one of those books assigned in 6th or 7th grade (please excuse my memory; it is scarily specific on things that absolutely don't matter but failing on anything that pertains to my earlier education).  I may have read it completely back then.  I have an odd feeling that I read both The Pearl and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952) in the same year for the same class – and finished both – but I more clearly remember almost finishing The Grapes of Wrath (1939) in 7th grade and considering that an accomplishment at the time.  Anyway, I had some familiarity with The Pearl.
     There is nothing subtle or nuanced in Steinbeck's novella.  In that regard, it is proper fare to be assigned to 12-13 year olds – especially if the teacher giving the assignment is hellbent on the students finding and analyzing the symbols and tone of the piece.  However, for an adult – and one who doesn't have to give a detailed report proving that he gets what the author is saying – it is somewhat frustrating.   
     The Pearl presents Mexico, or at least its localized region, less critically than Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory did.  Sure, Steinbeck gets points for expressing the type of internalized colonialism that sets the elites against the natives, but that point seems lost in his greater picture of self-destructive greed.  Indeed, it is lost completely when the elites lose only hired hands and potential immediate profit – nothing real to them; there will always be more money to be made and people to be hired to do the dirty work that passes for business.  Steinbeck doesn't need a proto-Communist Revolution to place the well being of his characters in danger.  The danger is as real and as present as the human condition, but it is revealed along the way in such heavy handed prose that it doesn't read as those it was intended for a sophisticated audience.
     While making that criticism, I will fully own the fact that the least of Steinbeck's fiction is undoubtedly better crafted than the best of mine.  In this instance, however, too much of his is awkward.  The description of the action scenes seems to take the reader away from the story and its meaning.  The lack of familiarity between the pearl divers and the villagers, while plausible, doesn't paint the picture of two sets of beings inhabiting the same space.  Worst, the most important scene in the book is glossed over with no reasonable explanation for how it actually happened given that the description of where characters were before the event would render it impossible. 
     The Pearl presents an insanely simple story, but it takes a long time to tell it (for it being so simple).  Yes, greed is bad; it can corrupt a person if all he or she does is want for more.  But Steinbeck tries to play some false nobility into being so poor and ignorant as to not know that one is being exploited, that surviving and being happy with squalor is better than aspiring for something more if it means that there are moments of unhappiness and it restricts the gain of others. 
     Still, it is an easy and quick read.  I started it on my train ride into the city and finished it on the train ride home, with about 15 minutes to spare.  I would recommend The Power and the Glory over The Pearl, because it is a much better book and has more mature points to be made.  I prefer my tales not be structured so black and white, but I understand why Steinbeck wrote this that way.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Cedar Rapids (2011)

     I avoided seeing Cedar Rapids (2011) in the theater for fear that it would come off like a Will Ferrell film – that is to say, overly loud and decidedly unsubtle in its humor.  While it is largely the latter, the only offender in terms of tone is John C. Reilly, who plays his character (Dean Ziegler), too brashly to fit in with the other staid – and seemingly real – characters.  There is a problem with how disconnected the characters seem from the real world, which is to say the modern world, but that is played for charm rather than insult.  Indeed, had Cedar Rapids not taken an odd detour to the dark side of rural America, the entire film would have felt like an homage to the character of American goodness of character as contrasted with corporate (small as they are) evils.
     Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, and he does a good job even when he is given questionable material.  Helms is really too old for the role – he looks every bit of his 37 years – but he manages a kind and believable aw shucks persona that allows the other actors room to work.  Reilly is much less giving, acting at the others; it feels like he was getting direction for a different film.  Anne Heche is fantastic and believable as a mother of two who uses the annual ASMI convention as an escape from the limitations of her life – marriage, children, responsibility.  Isiah Whitlock, Jr. is...well, I think he is great in almost everything he has done. 
     The plot involves a few too many crude elements.  This is not to say that I am not of fan of crude humor, but it feels like it was wedged in for the sake of satisfying people who know of Helms only from The Hangover (2009).  This could have been a gem of a subtle, adult comedy; the seeds are there and there was clearly an effort to make it happen.  However, there were too many distractions from the heartwarming material for cheap laughs, or attempts at cheap laughs.
     I liked the cast.  I likes most of the set up.  I just feel that somebody – at some point – felt pressure to go for the lowest common denominator in order to ensure a box office success.  Cedar Rapids should have been a comedy that avoided the pitfalls that have made the last decade's offerings largely unfunny.  It isn't cold and heartless – it is much better than that – but it just could not elevate itself to excellence.  If you haven't seen it, I would recommend giving it a chance.  Just realize that it could have been much better, or much cruder; it just should have chosen a direction and gone all in.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Best Car (2012)

     This is some real-life inspired fiction.  While there is much about this that resembles my life, it is far enough from the real truth that it would be an unrecognizable accounting for anyone who was present to the era for me.  But the car was real.

The Best Car

     I avoided getting my driver's license at sixteen.  There were several factors that contributed to that delay – I didn't want to take driver's ed at school, and quickly quit the Len Scaduto course in which my father enrolled me; I knew I wouldn't have regular access to a car, at least not until my mother replaced her rapidly aging '86 Ford Tempo with something reliable; I had no means of income for gas or insurance, and I was thoroughly uninterested in working to acquire money; I had friends who could and would drive me places – but none of them were the real reason I didn't get my license.  I avoided it because having one would have meant I could be pressed into service at any moment, wholly subject to my father's whims and his imagined state of health.  I bore witness to my older brother being awakened in the middle of the night – anytime from midnight to four a.m. – for a not so emergency trip to the hospital because our father had a headache and wanted drugs to make it go away.  By the time I was old enough to understand his need for injectable medication to combat his maladies I was also aware that he was being administered doses that would kill a regular, healthy person.  Moreover, he needed such treatment at irregular times; whenever was worst for everyone else would perfectly fit his schedule.  My father lived a life that was, without question, wholly about himself.
     Living in fear of having a strange dictate – to drive my father to the hospital or his doctor's home, which meant that he would be getting a dose so large that it couldn't be recorded without alarming hospital staff – was something that I knew was abnormal.  Every part of it, really.  I have to assume that most children, even in the heady years of adolescence with a need to establish independence from their supervisory adults, would not be alarmed by the call to be of service.  Children are supposed to love their parents, sons to love their fathers, and so there should not have been a reason for my very real need to not be made to serve as courier to wherever the drugs were stored.  Still, there it was.  I knew that if I could avoid the license I couldn't be forced to take him, and I should then have been able to get my license without any need of driver's ed once I turned eighteen.  I drove occasionally without a license, in the parking lot of the apartment complex and once to a job interview – a job in which I lost all interest once it was clear they wanted me to work forty hours a week while I was still in school – so I wasn't wholly unfamiliar with the operation of a motor vehicle.
     My father only tried to get me to drive him to the hospital once after my brother moved on to college.  He woke me up at one a.m. and told me I needed to get dressed and take him for some relief.  I was told that he had waited hours before deciding it was so bad that he couldn't possibly sleep, apparently unaware of the fact that if we had left at 10 p.m. we could have been back to the apartment by 2 a.m., and that would have allowed for some sleep.  Waiting until one was essentially a type of sleep deprivation, so long as one allows that the thirty minutes of sleep I may have gotten to that point would effectively be worthless.  To this day I think of it as a kind of terrorism, and I had no desire to bend to the will of a terrorist.  I told him that he had plenty of options other than me.  He could call a cab – roundtrip fare would have cost less than twenty dollars.  He had a friend in the building next door that he could have called and she probably would have taken him.  If he felt so bad that he had no choice but to go to the hospital, he could call for an ambulance – we had learned that the insurance United provided would cover the cost of the ambulance if he spent at least a night in the hospital and be a little more than one hundred twenty five dollars out of pocket if he didn't – and spend the night there. 
     Whatever it took to allow me to try to get some sleep, something that never came easy back then, that is what I suggested.  He pleaded his case for about fifteen minutes upon which time he must have realized I was not going to drive him; he had no winning counterargument to "I am not driving without a license" and so he simply went back to bed.  When I saw him the following afternoon, he was fine.  More than that, he never got so sick that he needed to be taken to the hospital or his doctor from his headaches.  His condition was, as I suspected without any cause, was wholly dependent upon his ability to have others service it.  I did not want to be tethered to it, made to serve without any attention directed back at me, and thus I decided to similarly rely on others when it came to needing to be driven places.  To be fair, if I couldn't get a ride I would usually walk or ride my bike.  I appreciated the efforts others made for me, but I was sure as hell not going to be helpless without them.  And I wasn't going to make it all about me.  Not always.
     That was a lesson learned while without a license.  In an effort to retrieve a hastily mailed letter, I got a friend to drive me to its intended destination where I could steal it from the mailbox.  When it wasn't there, I told him we would have to try again the next day.  He smiled and said, "Not going to happen.  You had your chance to get it.  If it that important, find another way to get there before anyone gets the mail."  Well, there was no way I could walk or bike there in time unless I ditched school to do it.  I missed a lot of days of high school, but never so I could commit a crime.  The letter got delivered, and the consequences of it fell much more lightly than I would have thought.  Still would have liked to have had the chance to get it back before it was read, but that is a bell that cannot be unwrung.
     The only reason I ended up with a driver's license before I turned eighteen was that my father got demoted at work and couldn't afford to keep us living where we were.  In actuality, that pay cut served as his chance to hand me off to my mother while – unbeknownst to anyone – he started squirreling money away for a Harley.  He went to live out in Winfield and I was shipped up to Oak Park.  Rather than transfer to the local high school – mine was so familiar with my brand of bullshit that I got away with most of the things that would cause them to expel other students – it was decided that I should finish where I started.  The first week my mother drove me to and from school every day, three hours sucked right out of her day; she tired of that by Tuesday.  The second week I was allowed to sleep at a friend's house but not really fed, and that was about as bad as anything I had experienced to that point.  The next week school was on break, but it was also when the road work for my driver's ed started. 
     Knowing that I was to be moved twenty five miles north, there had been a real push to get a license in my hands.  I cruised through the classroom sessions, and the school decided to cut how much practical experience I needed because I would often be inaccessible.  I had four days of driving over two weeks time before the school said i was ready to get my license.  What did they care?  The check had cleared months ago.  I didn't feel especially confident, but I knew that I could not rely on a mix of commutes from my mother, accommodating friends, and simply not going to school to make it to graduation.
     My father cleared a day so he could be there when I took my test.  He had some work he had to do on the car, an '84 Subaru GL Wagon – the last of the non-boxy wagons – that had been handed down from my brother.  The red wagon had been replaced with a blue one, this time a stick, which made it somehow more masculine in my brother's eyes.  They were both little station wagons, so I can't imagine either dripped with masculinity.  And he traded the near burgundy red one for powder blue.  I didn't care, because what I needed was a car that would handle the sixty to seventy miles a day that I would put on it.  My father gave it a tune up, replaced the brakes, and properly inflated the tires before I arrived.  The car was at our old apartment where my father continued to rent garage space.  He wasn't going to abandon his collection of tools, but he also couldn't bring himself to package them up and not be accessible.  His tools were different from his son.
     He drove us over to the facility in his Jeep Wagoneer.  I'll never understand why he didn't want me to take the test in the car I would actually be driving, but in retrospect I imagine it was a sense of ownership that he needed to impress on me.  He would be fully in charge because it was his vehicle.  Anyway, there was almost no wait at the testing facility.  I got one question wrong on the written – I don't know which and it still bothers me that I don't know – and sat patiently waiting for a chance to go out on the road.  I was assigned a man who looked like he could have been my guidance counselor's ugly, angry older brother, which meant that he was thoroughly unpleasant all the way around.  He started off by barking "Horn singal!" at me, which apparently meant that he wanted me to sound the car horn to prove that it worked.  I lost points there, in parallel parking, and the three point turn, but was still set to pass.  Unfortunately, when I pulled into a space to park I was about a foot into the neighboring space.  So that was a fail.
     What to do?  I had a car sitting and waiting for me.  I needed a license so I could go to school and graduate and do something with my life.  Jesus, without the license I might have to actually finish at a different school and meet new people.  The horror of it all.  Normally – or so we were told – I would have to wait a week before any possible retest.  Fuck that.  My father and I pled my case, my need for a license.  Never mind if I might actually be a danger to others on the road, I had places to go and a means to get there; I just needed a license in case I got pulled over.  A younger, less angry man came out and agreed to let me retest right then.  I passed with no problems and got the damn laminated piece of paper.
     My father took me back to the garage.  He had to run a quick errand, but he would meet me up at the school and make sure I made it to my mother's in one piece.  That was fine with me.  I was young and stupid and eager to prove that I could handle unsupervised driving even though I had almost no experience and absolutely none with the car with which I was entrusted.  I pulled out of the parking lot and was pulled over about a minute later.  The officer said I had failed to signal and I pointed out, very politely, that I didn't signal because it was a bend in the road and there was no other way to proceed on it; who the hell wouldn't know where the car was going?  He grumbled a little and told me to "be more careful". 
     About a quarter of a mile later he pulled me over again.  "I ran your plates.  You aren't from around here.  Your car is registered up in Oak Park."  To him that meant I lived near black people and therefore crime.  I must be some kind of criminal.  I pointed out to him that I had lived in his sad little retail-reliant village for four years, my father maintained his garage there and it was where I had to pick up the car.  Furthermore, I went to the high school about five blocks west and one block north.  I showed him my school ID.  I had every right to be there, but officer asshole wanted to prove something.  He grumbled again and then said he was going to write me a ticket for the illegal turn.  I laughed at him and said something along the lines of suing him for wrongful prosecution – or something similar I could have borrowed from Ghostbusters – and waited for my ticket.  About a minute later he came back and gave me license and told me to get back to where I came from.  At least I didn't get that ticket.
     My father showed up about thirty minutes after I got to the school.  We headed north, me following him because despite making the trip innumerable times I had never paid attention to which streets I needed to use.  Somewhere after I exited on 1st Avenue I lost him.  Shit!  I crept along, terrified both by the prospect of being lost and the other, more confident drivers flying by on my left.  I made a wrong turn on Madison and thought for a moment that I had crossed the border with Chicago – instead of it just being Forest Park – because of all the signs for liquor stores and bars.  I got myself righted and made it to my mother's.  My father showed up about twenty minutes later.  He decided to stop and get something to eat.  Not a lot of concern about it, either.
     From that point on, the car was mine.  I owned that car – actually, my brother owned it until it spent a winter in an O'Hare employee parking lot letting its underbelly get salted away – and made myself powerful among my friends by being able to drive places.  More than that, I had to drive places.  I took the opportunity to give pretty underclass girls a ride home, girls who never would have spoken to me otherwise, and learned the dangers of treating parking lights as headlights.  I got to spend almost every Sunday with a girl I was in love with – never mind that she was dating my close friend with whom I would help work stuffing Sunday Tribunes on Saturday night – because I had a car and he had destroyed his.  The car allowed me to feel as though I were a real person and not subject to the threats and whims of others.
     It was, without question, the best car I will ever have.  It isn't just about its primacy.  I kept a bag of clothes in the back so that I could spend the night wherever I wanted – there wasn't any insistence that I needed to be home.  With the seats folded down it was like a miniature covered pick-up; it certainly could carry a heavier load than my best friend's truck.  While I was aware that it could also double as a fantastic 'fuck wagon', I had nowhere near the confidence to test it out in such an endeavor.  My relationship with that car was about me, and I don't think I would have wanted to invite anyone else into something so intimate and risk how I felt about the beast. 
     And it was a beast, a might monster hidden in a partially rusted out and neglected body.  That wagon drove over a tree and a mailbox in one motion.  It didn't even damage the car.  Never mind that that tree was about six inches in circumference at its thickest or that the ground was so saturated with rain that the wheels sunk three inches into the ground, tearing up the lawn like it was only an ephemeral covering for the soil.  It took some hasty work – and a pair of baseball bats wedged under the rear wheels – to free the wagon from that muddy mess.  As I drove my friends away from the scene of the crime – conspicuously close to where I had tried to steal a letter only a few months prior – me grinning and they in near panic, I excoriated them for not keeping their eyes on the road.  They knew my attention would be elsewhere, yet not one of them said anything until we had already laid waste to the tree en route to the mailbox; some twenty five feet of non-road and none of them felt the need to say a damn thing. 
     We were muddy, and scared, and exhilarated.  My car – utter perfection in a compact, unassuming form – had inflicted damage and remained unharmed.  It was beyond perfect for the feelings of an empowered adolescent; it was freedom to do anything, yet it never occurred to us that there was much more to do than use the car to drive.  Driving was both a necessity and an expression of freedom, and we were free.  When relating this story to the acquaintance who lived near the scene of the crime, she could not keep herself from bursting into a near hysterical laughter.  Apparently, all her neighbor had said when seeing the damage the next morning was an exasperated "teenagers".
     That wagon drove a thousand miles one weekend trying to keep a relationship together, and not one in which I was directly involved.  It made a trip to a Boy Scout camp just to rescue a friend to see the premiere of Jurassic Park on the big screen – but the friend blew me off – on my birthday.  It made two trips out to Iowa City while I was scrambling to get courses and a place to live, and three more while I was there for a year (not attending those courses).  It was my means of being something other than trapped.  My father was disengaged from my life for the most part and there would be no threat to be his driver as he saw fit.  My mother was content enough to let wander around with it so long as I kept her marginally informed and made appearances at home. 
     That '84 Subaru GL Wagon in near-burgundy will forever be the best car I will ever have because it was the only one that gave me a sense of freedom, a sense that I was something other than trapped and small.  No other car – and most that followed were absolute pieces of shit – can be that for me again.  Like the car, life has worn me down.  Instead of freedom, a car has become a responsibility, a necessity to travel to places not accessible by the CTA or Metra.  The subsequent cars became the beasts that bore me to and from work, which immediately lessens the value one can assign to it.  It was the freedom to continue to go to the school where I had a small band of intensely close friends.  It became the means to access pretty girls in high school, and if I had any confidence back then it could have been so much more.  It became to embodiment of what I wanted to be able to see in myself.  Small but tough, reliable, versatile, and efficient; with over one hundred fifteen thousand miles on it, the wagon still got about twenty seven miles to the gallon.  Neglected for a winter, it was destroyed.
     I would like to say that the lesson is that one cannot neglect oneself in a similar manner.  That is how time gets away from people, they get busy living the workaday and miss the moments that we think should define us.  It isn't, though.  I simply miss being able to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle and know – or be astonished by – it survive a run-in with a sapling and a mailbox and be no worse for wear.  I want it to be the metaphor for how the seemingly small shit that comes down on me like rain is nothing that I can't overcome, with nary a scratch (or smelling fine if I want to be consistent in mixing my metaphors).  I know better, though.  The little things are the ones that will kill you.  They will eat you away, piece by piece when you aren't paying attention.  They will die like that wagon, a victim of the services that made the lot accessible to those moving their cars in and out on a daily basis. 
     That wagon is the best car ever because at the time I was driving it, I was still full of potential and promise.  Never mind that it was well past its prime, it was new to me.  It was the vehicle that could help carry me forward, but it died an inglorious death.  And whenever I notice that its promise is gone, I feel somehow despondent over how I have accorded myself.  I have recaptured none of what I felt with that car.  That freedom is somehow gone forever.  The road is dark.  The trees are tall and healthy.  The mailboxes are wrapped over in brick and mortar.  There will be no second coming of that old hope, but the smallest remnant of its flame resides within me because I had experienced it and done so well.
     Even if, in the full accounting, it was just a car passed down to me because my brother had moved on to something better.